When candidates in the only competitive local race knocked on doors this weekend, they heard about more than just local worries.
New Haven has no truly competitive local races in Tuesday’s general election. (Technically the Republicans do have a candidate on the ballot in the 93rd General Assembly District and someone on the ballot for Congress, but there have been scant signs of a real campaign.)
The competition is taking place right over the border in Hamden, where Democrat Joshua Elliott and a band of fellow former Bernie Sanders presidential campaign workers — including his campaign manager, Sarah Ganong, who lives in New Haven — faces Republican town Councilwoman Marjorie Bonadies for the open 88th Connecticut General Assembly District seat.
The two candidates have been hitting the doors of voters all fall. As in most state representative races, the candidates hear a lot of hyperlocal issues. But in the final weekend, the candidates also found voters concerned about social justice across the urban border, regional education, the state business climate, and regulation.
The Parochial Vs. The Greater Good
Standing on a porch in Hamden’s quiet Spring Glen neighborhood, Elliott, a first-time candidate, heard a new concern from voter Ann Baker Pepe: That New Haven risks having a “Ferguson or Baltimore moment,” and that Hamden and its legislators would be just as culpable if it does.
“Do you know about LEAP?” asked Pepe, who is the board chair for the youth mentoring, academics and athletics organization “It helps over [1,200] kids and teens in New Haven. There’s a big line for it in the state budget.”
“No,” said Elliott. “Tell me about it.”
Elliott is running against Republican Councilwoman Marjorie Bonadies for Connecticut’s 88th District seat in the state House of Representatives. After defeating establishment candidate James Pascarella for the Democratic nomination, the former Bernie Sanders volunteer, manager at Hamden’s Thyme & Season Market and owner of Shelton’s Common Bond market has rolled out a platform focusing on a higher minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, sustainable state budgets that give Hamden more funding for its public schools, and campaign finance reform.
Phone banking during the week, he heard a lot about rising property taxes, K-12 public education, and Quinnipiac University students moving into Hamden neighborhoods and lowering their property values, he said Saturday morning as he prepared to canvas his “1s and 2s” — voters who are already supporting or likely to support him.
Packing his car full of lawn signs, he said that he was expecting to hear echoes of those concerns while pounding the pavement one final weekend.
“Hamden hasn’t recovered from the 2008 recession, and voters are very, very frustrated,” he said.
But that wasn’t what he heard when Pepe opened her front door and stepped out onto a fall-scented porch midway down Santa Fe street. Instead, she wanted to talk jobs and education more broadly, and how Elliott will move the Democratic needle to the left. She was already on his side, she said, but she wanted to know even more before heading to the polls.
“We really need to change the budget,” she said. ”People [employed by] the state can’t be in a position where their benefits are so much better than the average person’s.”
Elliott nodded.“To me, the answer is to raise the minimum wage, support unions, and also make sure we do a better job of taxing the ultra rich,” he said, preparing to hand Pepe a piece of campaign literature.
She moved on to education, a key issue for her as LEAP board president, board member for the Connecticut Voices for Children advocacy group and director of development at the Foote school. “If we pulled it together for schools and New Haven County was one district, that would solve a lot.”
Elliott has floated the idea of regionalizing public schools in the wake of Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s ruling earlier this year calling or an overhaul of how the state funds education. Elliott was eager to discuss the idea with Pepe.
“Well, you wouldn’t believe how many people in Hamden think a dollar given to New Haven is a dollar taken away from them,” he said, adding that he disagrees with that notion. “If I’m in there, there will be about 15 of us [progressive Democrats], which means we’ll have some leverage with center line Democrats. As each issue comes up and we have these small conversations about what is the most beneficial thing to do for the most number of people, you can change people’s minds. ”
“You need fair institutions,” he added. “All it takes is conversations with people.”
Pepe nodded, her dog Ella running at her feet. “I care a great deal about LEAP,” she said, explaining what the organization was when Elliott said he’d not heard of it. “My greatest wish is that New Haven never has a Ferguson moment or a Baltimore moment. One of the things it’s involved in is having the kids get to know the police. There’s a big budget line for LEAP.” She asked if Elliott will oppose cuts to the organization.
He nodded, saying that he’d hope to have some sway on statewide budgetary concerns. “When you’re in the bubble, you don’t know exactly what influence you’re going to have,” he said. “But I do know that I’ll be talking with everybody and anybody about these issues.
“They are important to me, and the long-term success of Connecticut,” he added back at headquarters. “So much of the primary, my opponent was like: ‘I’m about Hamden, I’m about Hamden, I’m about Hamden.’ Which I understand. At the same time, I’m still serving people at the state as well. And I’m still human, and I still want to enact policies that are good for people generally. So I don’t see it as representing only Hamden. I see it as representing people as fairly as possible.”
The Yoke Of Regulation
Standing on the front stoop of a home in suburban northern Hamden, Marjorie Bonadies nodded in agreement as Greg MacDonald expressed his frustrations with Connecticut’s economy.
“Connecticut is dying,” said MacDonald, a 59-year-old engineer who founded a pump and fluid handling company called Mechanical Solutions two decades ago.
“Everybody’s depressed about the economy, because Connecticut just makes it so difficult to start and run a business. There’s not enough help and too many regulations. I don’t think I’d be able to found my company in this state if I was starting out today.”
Bonadies, a nurse and second-term Hamden legislative council representative, is the Republican candidate in this year’s race to fill the empty General Assembly seat in the 88th district. She recognized in MacDonald the type of unsatisfied voter who she thinks may give her a chance to pull off an election-day upset in a city where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 4-to-1.
After spending most of this clear, late Autumn Saturday morning dodging cars along the sidewalk-less streets of Hamden’s West Woods neighborhood and knocking on doors but rarely getting an answer, Bonadies was eager to engage with MacDonald as one of the few prospective voters who had come outside to chat.
Handing him a campaign flyer, Bonadies launched into her pitch.
“Regulations are like a life jacket,” she said with a smile, borrowing an analogy she had picked up from the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “One is good, and could save your life. But if you’re wearing three or four, you’re going down, and you might not be able to move.
“I’d like to see Connecticut create a business friendly environment again, and I think that can only come about with a greater balance of voices in the General Assembly, as opposed to the usual echo chamber where everyone’s saying the same thing and nothing’s getting better.”
As a Republican running in an overwhelmingly blue state, and during an election that has a particularly contentious candidate at the top of the GOP ticket, Bonadies has sought to carve out a niche for herself as a deliberate counter to popular perceptions of Republicans as angry, unpleasant white men.
“My son’s friends are always so surprised when they find out I’m a Republican,” she said as she navigated the steep descent of Still Hill Road. “They say, ‘But you do yoga, and like to bike, and are such a good baker. How can you be a Republican?’”
For Bonadies, the answer is simple: the economy. She said Connecticut Democratic leaders are driving people from the state with higher and higher taxes and little economic growth to show for it. She pointed to the myriad foreclosure and for sale signs that littered the spacious lawns of the neighborhood as evidence.
She is also seeking to brand herself as an outsider at a time when Republicans have become a beleaguered minority, silenced and dismissed before they even get a chance to explain their ideas.
“We have less pluralism on our college campuses than ever before,” she said, referencing recent protests at universities around the country that have found students engaging with issues of system racism and freedom of speech. “You can be diverse in every way now, except in thought.”
Nevertheless, Bonadies recognized that she is not the only Republican in Hamden residents’ thoughts right now, and she expressed some discomfort while passing a home that had her campaign’s lawn sign standing side by side with one for Trump and Pence.
“Donald Trump does not represent me,” she said. “I didn’t vote for him in the primaries, and I do think that he is hurting my chances in Hamden more than he is helping. But I do want to respect the other voters in my party who did select him.”
It’s those Republican voters, as well as any Hamden Democrats and Independents unhappy with the current state of the Connecticut economy and eager for a different fiscal approach, that Bonadies is counting on to show up at the polls this Tuesday if she will have any chance of prevailing against her Democratic opponent Joshua Elliott.